By CLIVE BARNES
The episode, which is the opening of Winter- branch, is not entirely typical of Merce. Cunning- ham. But it emphasises the reasons why his London season has been both controversial and fashionable. With his company, Cunningham opened a week's London season at Sadler's Wells last week. The success of this has been to win him his current two-and-a-half-week stint at the Phoenix. What everyone imagined would be an esoteric sideshow has become a fashionable hit.
During the week Cunningham has presented fifteen ballets new to London, and one of them even new to him, and they have been strange, curious and compelling. On the first night I found myself in two minds about him (both fairly favourable), and those two minds have been debating ever since night after night, as I have tried to weave my way through the maze that Cunningham and his principal collaborators, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, have prepared.
Before the season the three of them had held a press conference and the nightly programme would have been a lot more helpful if it had included some similarly clear statement of their artistic aims in place of Peter Brook's pompous encomium on Cunningham. At this conference much was made clear—including Cunningham's revolutionary divorce of dance from music. With very few exceptions his ballets are not set to music; the music merely accompanies the action as it might a film. All that is required is that, as Cunningham puts it, 'the music and choreography must take place at the same theatre and at the same time.'
On the artistic beliefs of the trio, Rauschenberg illuminated one aspect of them when he said at the press conference: 'If you have to say some- thing everyone can understand, then that has to be clumsy. It is better to offer people some- thing and let them choose.' It was Cunningham, however, who summed up the group's attitude: We don't aim at producing a specific emo- tional result., We do not aim to express—we present this event before you involving sight and sound, and leave it up to the ,audience to decide what is and what is not expressed. I have a feeling it produces some kind of atmosphere. • Undeniably, the events at Sadler's Wells have
been, for the most part, peculiar. We in Britain have previously seen no dancing that was experi- mental in this way. Yet it should be remembered that Cunningham is far from being the most advanced of the American moderns. There are dance events regularly taking place at the Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square that make Cunningham seem like Swan Lake; curious little numbers with plastic bags and vacuum cleaners sufficient to make the baldest egghead's hair stand on end.
What is happening is simply that—for good or ill---dance is catching up as a modern art. This is in itself rewarding—and surprising. Obviously, ballet has lagged behind painting for innumer- able reasons, both economic and artistic. In ballet, more than any other art form, you are dependent upon an audience. You are also de- pendent upon gathering together a group who will work with you, a studio in which to create, a stage on which to perform. A solitary painter in his attic with paints and canvas has a much easier time of it.
Economic and sociological considerations, however, are not the only reason for ballet's reluctance to keep in phase with the rest of the arts. In painting, the movement has been almost entirely toward the abstract, in music it has been, at least, anti-romantic, or anti-subjective. Similar tendencies, obviously less well-defined, can per- haps be discerned in• the cinema and literary theatre, where, interestingly, the break-up of language for communication is moving them sig- nificantly towards ballet.
But in any of these dramatic arts, necessarily • involving people, the artistic current flowing to- wards abstraction and ambiguity is stemmed by the obvious difficulty of men themselves not being abstract. Cunningham himself is completely definite about this, saying : 'Everything the human being does is human, therefore any abstract dance is impossible.' It is possible, how- ever, to depersonalise dance, to make it more objective—and this, it seems, is what Cunning- ham, together with many other American choreo- graphers, is attempting to do.
It seems, although Cunningham did not say this, that the main weapon in the war against subjectivity is to be surprise. Cunningham will apparently employ everything and anything that stops the audience from taking the dancers for granted. Primarily he jolts our imagination and senses by the juxtaposition of the music and the dance. We take for granted the intended `musicality' of choreography, and 'unmusical' choreography is as distressing in ballet as poor draughtsmanship is in painting. But Cunning- ham's amusical choreography provokes a new reaction.
Equally provocative is the actual nature of his choreography. We are accustomed to pre- suming that choreography must flow, must obey certain grammatical rules, so that the dance rises and falls in a satisfyingly predictable fashion. Cunningham will have none of this. He combines the most unlikely and ungainly steps, he throws in naturalistic movements, he uses chance sequences.
It is perhaps Cunningham's concept of 'chance' that is the most spurious-sounding of all his artistic methods. This apart, he is not so wildly revolutionary. His dance language—with its severely classical emphasis on balance and the spine—is what one would expect from a former principal dancer with Martha Graham, who has also worked briefly with Balanchine. But the chance element raises a strange, non-realistic quality that gives Cunningham's work its special flavour. To establish his choreography Cunning- ham sometimes uses chance selections—sequences written down on paper and then taken at random, or picked by a dice. His interpreters are also allowed some freedom, sometimes enough to suggest improvisation. When chance elements— which are usually matched by equally unknown performance factors in both the music and de- sign—come together they may, or equally may not, work.
The ballet Story, given on the first programme, is an excellent example of Cunningham's forces of destiny style. The music by Toshi Ichiyanagi appears to be pretty much of a random selection of noises, the dancers change the sequences and pick up what costurbes they like from a big clothes hamper. Rauschenberg personally im- provises from evening to evening the decor and objects handled by the dancers. On the first night at Sadler's Welk, apart from a batty Bedouin woman dashing through the proceedings like a dervish, the performance was flat. On the last night at Sadler's Wells it came together much more enjoyably. I wonder what, if anything, is gained by these chance operations; although, in fairness. I also wonder about the usefulness of similar procedures in painting which now seem to be generally acceptable.
The most controversial aspect of the season has been the music. Some by Cage himself and much of the rest by appareht followers, it has been loud, irrational and anti-Romantic. It seems to reject technique and construction in favour of noise, naturalistic noise that is possibly too unambiguous in its crunching and thumping to be very suitable for the restrained objectivity of Cunningham's dance.
The best quality of Cunningham's choreo- graphy is its clarity. But it also uses, most inter- estingly, the wide variations of time that most choreographers, tied as they are to the music, are forced to ignore. Fast movement, slow move- ment, irrational movement, colloquial move- ment, stiff-backed formal -movement, Cunning- ham mixes all together with a daring freedom. He also uses space with no limitations on shape or construction. You never, ever, know when one of his ballets is going to end—or, even, if. At times this is a sort of merit.
Is Cunningham pointing the way in which dance will travel? One way, almost certainly. Cunningham himself is not, I would guess, a particularly important choreographer. His wryly humorous works, such as Antic Meet, are the best, and there is often a pure dancing flame in his work which enchants. His ballets are usually theatrical, and he and his company, par- ticularly Carolyn Brown, are very good to watch. Nothing is pretentious—except the programme notes—and there is a clear simplicity in the air that is refreshing to sniff. Yet Cunningham's final significance and value will presumably be as an iconoclast, a questioner of an Establishment too long established, and too long unquestioned. His work must be seen.